Solar Industry News

What Happens to Solar Panels When They Die?

Recycling Solar Panels

We are approaching a period when many solar panels will be reaching the end of their useful lives. While solar waste only accounts for a small fraction of all global electronics waste, the U.S. needs to have a plan in place for addressing solar panels that are no longer viable. Many obsolete panels do unfortunately end up in landfills.

ReVision recycles any broken panels (usually caused by fallen trees, but occasionally an errant golf ball) with New Hampshire-based Aurum Recovery Group, keeping them out of landfills. This is not true industry-wide, however, highlighting the need for more sustainable practices across the solar field. Experts confirm that recycling is the answer, but we need government policies to encourage and support the practice. Joel Alder, ReVision’s Sustainability Coordinator, says “we’re proud of our sustainability efforts at ReVision, but we recognize that it’s just the beginning. We need to work towards a future where responsible end-of-life management for solar panels is the norm, not the exception."

A solar panel has reached the end of its useful life when its ability to generate electricity has significantly decreased. This process takes 30 to 35 years. To understand what can come next for solar panels, it’s helpful to know more about what goes into them. 

What Are Solar Panels Made Of?

ReVision installs a type of solar panel known as a crystalline silicon module (C-Si). C-Si panels are made of silicon cells and a combination of glass, aluminum, plastic, copper, silver, and other special metals. The cells are made up of narrow slices of silicon, a material perfect for turning sunlight into electricity; it’s the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust (after oxygen).

When sunlight particles hit the silicon cell, it causes electrons to break away from the silicon atoms. These un-bonded electrons can then be captured and used to produce electricity. These silicon slices are either “poly” (many crystals), or “mono” (one crystal) based on their creation process.


The cells are then enclosed in a frame of plastic film, tempered glass, and aluminum to protect them from weather conditions like rain or snow. 


What Are the Benefits of C-Si Panels?

C-Si panels are the most common type of solar panel sold in the United States. This is because: 

1.     They’re reliable.

C-Si modules produce electricity for 30+ years and can withstand harsh New England weather conditions. ReVision installs panels from manufacturers that offer a 25-year power production guarantee, so you can rest assured we only install panels any of our employee-owners would be proud to have on their roof. 

2.     They’re efficient.

C-Si module efficiencies range from 19% to 22.8%, meaning ~22.8% of incoming sunlight is converted into electricity. These are some of the most efficient residential panels on the market. Keep in mind that no machines run at 100% efficiency, meaning that some energy is always lost in the form of heat, sound, or other forms of waste during the process of converting one form of energy into another. For instance, gas-powered cars operate at around 30% efficiency, meaning around 65 cents of every dollar spent on gas goes to waste (EVs have a much higher efficiency, operating at around 73%, but that’s a topic for another blog post).  

The Recycling Process: A Step-by-Step Guide 

95% of the materials that go into C-Si solar panels can be recycled, setting the stage for an eco-friendly disposal process. The first step is to figure out what you’re going to do with the panels. Companies that specialize in solar panel recycling are a great option, but they often prefer to work with larger quantities. Luckily there are also many electronics waste companies capable of handling solar panels, including ReVision's partner Aurum Recovery Group. The actual process of breaking down solar panels to be recycled starts with the following steps: 

  1. The company removes the aluminum frame and the junction box attached to the panel. 
  2. They then separate the glass from the silicon cell through a combination of thermal, mechanical, and chemical processes. 
  3. Finally, the silicon cells and special metals (silver, tin, copper, etc.) are purified by mechanically shredding the cells into fine particles that can then be separated and processed. 


Addressing Waste Classification Concerns 

In considering the recycling process, it’s important to address concerns about the waste classification of solar panels, which is often a point of confusion. Throwing solar panels in a landfill is wasteful but not harmful. Labeling all solar panels as “toxic” waste is misleading. 99% of all components in solar panels are non-hazardous materials. Due to the other 1%, the EPA can’t definitively say whether all solar panels are considered hazardous waste. Because of this, current U.S. policy leaves it up to the producer of the panel to determine whether the panel has hazardous waste characteristics.

Of the few hazardous materials that are found in solar panels, the vast majority are found in “thin film” panels. These comprise less than 5% of solar panels sold in the U.S. and are primarily sold outside New England. Companies like First Solar, one of the largest producers of thin panels in the world, use robust lifecycle management processes to ensure any hazardous materials are captured and managed properly at the end of a panel’s life. 

Broken solar panel.jpgWhy Recycle Solar Panels? 

While concerns about hazardous materials in solar panels are valid, it’s essential to understand the distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous materials in solar panels to recognize the potential of solar panel recycling.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that by 2050, recycling solar panels could generate 78 million tons of raw materials worldwide. If ultimately reintroduced into the economy, the value of these raw materials could surpass $15 billion. So, why aren’t more solar panels recycled? It boils down to government policy. 

Moving Forward: Advocating for Better Recycling Policies 

Lawmakers recognize that U.S. solar panel recycling regulations fall far behind our European counterparts. EU regulations “require 85% collection and 80% recycling of the materials used in PV panels.” Compare that to a U.S projection from 2020 to 2050 which predicts we will recycle only 10% of materials in end-of-life solar panels. Unlike the EU, the U.S. currently does not require solar panels to be recycled.

This contrast shows that we need more economically viable recycling solutions in the U.S. The average cost to recycle a solar panel in the U.S. is $28. A supportive recycling policy that helps reduce this cost by just $10 could significantly boost U.S. recycling rates, raising them from 10% to 35%.

Seeing that our current regulations are outdated and stifling our recycling practices, lawmakers are working to change waste policy; as of late 2023, the EPA is developing a proposed rule to add solar panels to the universal waste regulations and states like California have already characterized solar panels as universal waste to promote recycling and reuse. As the adoption of solar energy expands, the policies and economic incentives for recycling need to expand too.  

How Can I Take Action?

If you think your system is reaching the end of its useful life, contact the ReVision Energy Service team. Our technicians are highly skilled electricians who are certified to handle solar arrays. They’ll remove the system permanently without damaging the panels or your roof If you want to ensure your panels won’t be dumped in a landfill, contact us, and we will help you create a plan for disposing of your end-of-life array. 

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